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No quick answers on plebiscite

The issue of October's plebiscite results will be on the agenda for council's strategic planning session this week, but Mayor Cathy Heron is counselling patience for St.
Servus Place
A mother and daughter on the ice at Servus Place in 2016. Servus Place received funding within months of the 2004 plebiscite on the issue. City residents are still waiting for action following the 2017 plebiscite which asked voters about their desires for more aquatic, library and rink space. City council plans to discuss the plebiscite at its strategic planning session this week.

The issue of October's plebiscite results will be on the agenda for council's strategic planning session this week, but Mayor Cathy Heron is counselling patience for St. Albertans who are looking forward to progress on additional aquatic space, an ice rink or library space.

Heron said given the broad nature of the questions that appeared on October's ballot – which asked if residents support further planning on the three projects – and difficulty with interpreting the results, the discussion councillors have this week will only be the first step of many and likely won't yield any immediate answers.

Strategic planning will happen Jan. 11 and 12 and is not open to the public or to media.

"Every council member will approach that plebiscite in a different way. I'm really hoping it's a good, honest and open discussion," Heron said.

More definitive movement on the plebiscite will probably come at the end of June, when councillors expect to review a city report on short-term facility needs. In the past, several councillors have cited that report as being vital to their position on the projects that appeared on October's ballot.

Heron said she expects that report will approach St. Albert's facility needs from "a blank slate," looking at what all stakeholder groups need.

"I think (city staff) are going to need some council direction before they go a bit further," she said.

"I don't think the report is going to be the end-all, be-all, but it will allow the conversation to begin with council. I think that's going to be the biggest point."

Steps beyond that are up in the air. Unlike St. Albert's 2004 plebiscite on Servus Place, which received funding the same budget year as the election, Heron said she doesn't expect any quick action on the facilities currently in question.

"I don't think aquatic space will be in next year's budget ... I don't know for sure; I really need to hear what goes on (at strategic planning)," she said, noting she has heard from people who voted in favour of aquatic space without realizing it would be attached to Servus Place.

"I think probably the more responsible thing would be to do a little bit more research on what people want and where they want it."

Interpreting the plebiscite is a sticking point for Heron, who said the results are not black and white. Prior to the election, the former city council – of which Heron was a member – originally approved questions that included building costs, annual operating costs and estimated tax increases for each project.

But that was changed in September to ask if voters were "in favour of the city proceeding with further planning" for each project.

"The whole plebiscite is very difficult to interpret, about why people voted 'no' and why people voted 'yes.' It definitely is valuable, but the next steps will be for council to figure out why yes and why no," Heron said.

So did the former council blunder by changing the questions?

"I liked the fact that it was broad. But saying that, because it was so broad ... it pretty much ties our hands to no planning (for library space)," Heron said.

"That's what happens when you rush something, and when you have a council kind of wordsmithing on the fly."

Proper interpretation of the results will require additional input from residents, she said, and is something she hopes to bring up in the spring when council embarks on a door-knocking session.

"We built this community before plebiscites. We built it because we're an inclusive community that provides everything for everyone," she said, pointing to city money going toward pickleball courts and the creation of dog parks as examples.

"It's not just about the people who pay the property taxes. It's about everyone who lives in the city."

April Hudson

About the Author: April Hudson

April is the editor of the St. Albert Gazette
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